The much-maligned sport of speedway found itself under fire again on Saturday night when a golden opportunity for positive publicity blew up in its face.
The brand new £8m National Speedway Stadium in Manchester opened its doors for the first time for a grand opening meeting that attracted a capacity crowd of 5500.
The Lord Mayor of Manchester cut the ribbon to officially open the new venue, which has been built as part of a regeneration plan for the east of Manchester.
Riders including world champion Tai Woffinden and eight other world championship Grand Prix contenders were ready to race in a glamorous invitational meeting at the impressive new arena.
But the enthusiastic speedway fans were sent home without seeing a single race, as the riders deemed track conditions unsafe.
The third and fourth turns of the new track were too soft and the surface became heavily rutted during a hastily-arranged practice session, which took place when the racing was supposed to start.
The crowd were left waiting for around an hour while riders and officials looked for a way forward, before deciding there was no option but to send everyone home without seeing a race.
Chris Morton, promoter of the Belle Vue Aces club who organised Saturday's event and will race at the new stadium, announced the decision to the crowd. Morton, a former world class racer who has helped drive the National Speedway Stadium project, told fans: “This is a disaster for us.”
He added: “The riders have been round and they don’t feel it’s fit to race on. We have some of the best riders in the world here and if that’s how they feel then that’s how it is.”
Former British champion Chris Harris, who was due to race, addressed the supporters by saying: “The track is the perfect shape, but it’s unraceable tonight. We could follow each other around, but we’re racers, not sheep.”
There are two schools of thought among the supporters as to who should take the blame. Some felt the riders should have raced in difficult conditions, but others blamed the organisers for filling the stadium when there were doubts over the state of the track.
If you can judge such things with a clap-o-meter, Harris received a more polite reception from the crowd than promoter Morton when the pair addressed them.
World champion Woffinden told MCN: “The truth is that we shouldn’t have been here. There was practice here yesterday and the track wasn’t right, so they should have waited and had this meeting on another night. We would all be ready to come back another time.”
The new National Speedway Stadium, which will host the prestigious World Cup for international teams in July, is still a shining light of hope for a sport that has seen little but decay in the past three decades. It has facilities that will help develop future generations of British speedway racers to reduce this country’s reliance on riders who commute from Scandinavia and eastern Europe.
But Saturday’s events were an embarrassment for a sport that is already seen as bike racing’s poor relation.
The first meeting at the new stadium is now due to take place on Good Friday – and the Belle Vue club have a lot less goodwill in the bank as they look to overcome the mess that developed from the botched opening night.